After the end of World War II in 1945, the UnitedStates and the Soviet Union, two of the world’s superpowers, were at odds.
Thistension was the start of the Cold War. It marked the state of ideological,political, and economic hostility between the two countries through threats,espionage, and propaganda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked theend of this war. Although most historians believe that the Cold War hasofficially ended, closer examination reveals that its underlying ideology and conflictsare still prevalent in today’s geopolitical landscape. Winston Churchill remarked in 1946 thatan “iron curtain has descended acrossthe continent.” This was in reference to the Berlin Wall which became thereal iron curtain separating Eastern Europe from Western Europe, the symbol ofthe bipolar system in the Cold War era.
The bipolarity between the superpowers,USA and USSR stemmed from the differences in their ideologies. Communism was the ideology followed by the Soviet Unionwhich believed in public ownership and communal control by state. They weretotalitarian, meaning all the power was with the rulers. The United States wascapitalistic, an ideology based on private ownership of land and businesses andcompetitive markets. They were also a democracy, which meant the citizenselected their representatives to the government.
This fundamentaldisagreement over government power and social structure divided these nationsand sparked an intense battle for world supremacy. A climate of fear and suspicionreigned as result of conflicts of ideologies andinterest. The Soviets felt threatened by the west and had concerns about UnitedStates spearheading ‘imperialist expansion’ while Americans were concernedabout Communist expansion.
There were several contracts, treaties andcouncils established to support containment of communism versus spread ofcapitalism. USA signed the Marshall Plan in 1948, granting 5 billion in aid to16 European nations to support their economic recovery from World War II. SovietUnion saw the conditions imposed in the plan as an anti-communist move by theUSA and refused to accept aid from the Marshall Plan, or allow any of theirsatellite states to take it. The Soviet Union instead created the Molotov Planand the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in response to the Marshall Planto give financial aid for the economic development of all the eastern Europeancommunist states that felt the threat of capitalism. The North Atlantic TreatyOrganization was formed in 1949, by United States and 11 other Western nationsto protect against the possible invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Unionand the prospect of Communist expansion. The NATO Preamble shows that they arecommitted to the principles of democracy and individual liberty to protect thefreedom and stability of the people of the North Atlantic.
In 1955, the SovietUnion reacted by creating the Warsaw Pact with its affiliated Communist nationsin Eastern Europe.The “space race” was a Cold War competition fordominance in spaceflight capability between the superpowers. Soviets launchedthe world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. In responseto the perceived Soviet dominance in Space technology, the United Statesenacted the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to fund aeronautical andspace research activities and successfully launchedtheir first satellite four months later called the Explorer I.
The competition tocreate the best technology fueled their “arms race” and enabled thebuildup of nuclear arms and the introduction of intercontinental ballisticmissiles. Both the Soviets and the US sought to prove the superiority of theirtechnology and their military firepower as an extension to their superiorpolitical-economic system. This conflict spanned from subtle espionage withnuclear submarines traversing noiselessly through the depths of the oceans toviolent combat in the form of building the Berlin Wall, proxy wars in Korea,Vietnam, and Afghanistan to quote a few examples. Koreanand Vietnam wars were proxy wars that served to illustrate a conventionalconfrontation between the USA & USSR.
In the KoreanWar (1950 to 1953), United States backed the South Korean government (with apro-American doctrine) against North Korea (Soviet backed People’s Republic)and demonstrated its continued commitment to containment, the idea that the USwould ultimately defeat communism by containing its spread. Similarly, the U.S.
government got involved in the Vietnamesewar (1955-1975) to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam by the NorthVietnamese government and the Viet Cong who were fighting to reunify Vietnamwith the support of the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.This was part of the domino theory of a wider containment policy, that has anaim of stopping the spread of communism in Asia. In the Soviet Afghanistan War(1979-1989), the United States supported the Mujahedeen, the Afghan guerrillasto overthrow the Soviet Union backed, communist government of Afghanistan. USAperceived the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan as the greatestthreat to peace since World War II and an attempt to expand Communistinfluence. Therefore, the US policy of supporting anti-Communist insurgents ongrounds of justice, necessity and democratic tradition.The Cold War appears to have ended as a result ofinternal factors such as Gorbachev’s reforms, the weak economy of the USSR, theSatellite States breaking away from the USSR, and the Strategic Arms LimitationTalks.
However, since the ideologies of USA and Russia remain unaltered, thefears and struggles from this conflict continues to propel the cold war in thecurrent era to prove their superior political-economic system.Bilateral proxy contests for power and influencehave continued, although in different forms. Russia’s sudden annexation ofCrimea in early 2014 is deeply rooted in the fight between Russia and the West.Crimean operation by Russia is perceived as a response to the threat of NATO’sfurther expansion along Russia’s western border manifested by the extension ofNATO membership in central and Eastern Europe since 1991. It was feared byRussia that Ukraine’s new government might join NATO. Therefore it is believedthat Russia pressured the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych to suspend alandmark political and trade deal with the European Union to avoid closer tieswith the EU.
Western support for the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russia leader,Viktor Yanukovych prompted Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula and provide supportfor pro-Russia rebels in battles in Eastern Ukraine. As a punishment, US,Canada and EU extended sanctions against Russia. Russian Foreign Ministry inturn published a reciprocal sanctions list of US citizens thus triggering theresurgence of chronic cold war like conflict. Syria too has been a criticalpoint of contention between Russia and the West.
Syria under President Assad isseen by the Kremlin as a key pillar of its strategic influence in the MiddleEast. The US has accused President Assad of widespread atrocities withchemical weapons and lends support to Syria’s main opposition alliance, theNational Coalition, and provides limited military assistance to”moderate” rebels against Assad. Russia on the other side has beenthe most important international supporter for Assad’s regime in Syria and thesole reason for the survival of the regime. It has blocked resolutions criticalof President Assad at the UN Security Council and has continued to supplyweapons to the Syrian military despite international criticism. In supportingAssad, Russia acts in deliberate and resolute opposition to the US. In Iran,similarly, the ideological framework of the Islamic Republic and the key pillarof Russian foreign policy of opposition to the United States contribute as themain incentive for the two to pursue collaboration.
Moscow and Tehran areforging close political and economic relations focused on improving transportlinks, trade, and energy cooperation. Russia has backed the 2015 Iran nuclearagreement, and has warned US not to pull out of Iran’s nuclear deal forsecurity and stability around the world. Russia has also aided Iran’s nuclearenergy program, by providing contributions to the construction of its firstnuclear power plant in the city of Bushehr, where Moscow has announced a newdeal to build next-generation nuclear reactors. Turkey and Russia have beendeeply frustrated with Washington’s approach to the Syrian conflict and inSeptember, Turkey rejected NATO warnings and finalized a deal to purchaseadvanced S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia. It has been observed that there has also been aspike in close military encounters between Russia and the west ‘at cold warlevels’.
The report, Dangerous Brinkmanship by the European Leadership Network,provides details of almost 40 specific incidents that have occurred in 2014from violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoidedmid-air collisions, close encounters at sea and simulated cruise missileattacks on North America in the Labrador Sea near Canada as a provocativeaction while NATO summit was in session at that time. While the US, Britain andother NATO allies accuse Russia of ramping up military action and returning tocold war ways by stepping up incursions, Moscow places the blame on the US andits European allies, accusing them of provoking the crisis in the Ukraine andthrough the imposition of sanctions on Russia. President Putin was quoted assaying that NATO’s expansion was a “geopolitical game changer” to which Russiawas forced to respond with long-range strategic bomber flights, to countersimilar US activities around Russia’s periphery. It is interesting to see that there are a numberof parallels that exist between the first Cold War and the one we are in now.
The first Cold War was all about proxy wars like the Korean war and Vietnam warand we are still continuing to fight them in Ukraine and Syria. Russia’sinvasion of old Soviet countries like Georgia, Ukraine and annexation ofCrimean peninsula to consolidate its power in Europe in the current day issimilar to the cold war Eastern Bloc divide against the NATO’s Western Europe.The new battle lines are being drawn, with countries like China, Syria, NorthKorea, and Iran aligning with Russia. Meanwhile countries like Australia,Japan, Germany, South Korea, Canada and the UK have aligned with the UnitedStates. Espionage and Military provocation seems to be back in swing. A SwedishHunt for ‘Russian’ Sub in October 2014 recalls the Cold War during which timethe Soviet submarines reportedly made numerous incursions into the country’sterritory. In 2010, Moscow and Washington orchestrated the biggest and leastsecret spy swap in decades involving a transfer of 10 Russian”sleepers” arrested in America in return for four alleged doubleagents. In 2014, there were several tit-for-tat expulsion of Polish and Germandiplomats from Russia and Russian diplomats from Poland for alleged spying,which is another apparent throwback to the cold war era of furtive espionage.
There’sa new space race. The Americans are signing contracts with American companieslike Boeing and SpaceX to reduce dependency on Russian rockets to get to theInternational Space Station. American President has signed the ‘White HouseSpace Policy Directive 1’ recently, pressing NASA to put humans back on themoon. Russia similarly wants cosmonauts there by the 2020s. Russia may not havechanged that much since the Soviet days, in terms of disseminating sanitizedpropaganda and sophisticated disinformation techniques. It has also raised itsgame significantly in employing the new weapons of the information age,including identity theft, cyber-warfare and computer hacking.
In conclusion from my investigations, it definitely seems like theCold War is back. In fact, it never really ended. Relations between Russia andthe United States were driven by a complex interplay of ideological, political,and economic factors. The distinct differences in the political systems of thetwo countries prevented them from reaching a mutual understanding on key policyissues which often ranged from cautious cooperation and often bitter superpowerrivalry and conflicts over the years. It is crucial to glean the history aswell as the current position of the cold war to better understand the state ofUS foreign policy, the underlying contributors to conflicts and tensions inEurope, Middle East and Far East and the potential risks they pose to ourinternational security and defense as a global citizen of the world.